Plastic Keg Collection & Recycling

TL;DR: Jolly Good Beer will collect any type of empty plastic “one way” keg for a fee of £1 +VAT per keg – our goal is to assist customers who need it with what can be a difficult waste disposal problem in many areas, and to work to ensure as much of the plastics we can consolidate in this way are recycled rather than sent to landfill. Plastic keg collections are done on delivery drops, and drivers will take as many as fits with their delivery schedule and return load expectations. Kegs must be fully empty for collection. The number of kegs collected is noted on your delivery note and added to your order ahead of invoicing. We can discuss arranging special keg collection visits on a case by case basis, there will be an added mileage based logistics fee in such cases.

Plastic kegs being processed for recycling

Jolly Good Beer has for years worked to be part of the solution on plastic keg recycling – and it has been a difficult task. What we discovered early on is that the existing UK recycling infrastructure simply cannot handle plastic kegs – and to this day (2021-10-13) as far as we know any plastic kegs that go into standard municipal recycling streams will simply go to landfill for the most part, or for power-generating incineration in a handful of cases. To know which exactly you will need to consult with your local waste collection handler – assuming they will even answer the question. As a result of this many local waste handlers simply refuse to take plastic kegs – which created a problem for many bars as they were thus left with an item of waste they were unable to get rid of.

Early on we tried repeatedly to find a recycling chain that would take keg plastics from us – but none in the UK were willing to deal with the problem of disassembling kegs. Basically unless a plastic item is a simple single thing made of one sort of plastic it isn’t going to get recycled. And even if it is a single plastic item, such as we thought if we took the polypropylene (PP) tops and bottoms off KeyKegs, if the human sorting lines don’t recognise that item immediately it’s going to be sorted into non-recycling. So basically only simple common mass-market plastic items have much hope of ever being recycled. Whether that recyclable material is ever recycled is another matter entirely – in many cases it may be shipped off to another country and stockpiled (and in some case then infamously simply burnt) it is a global problem that the recycling of plastics is mainly broken.

At one point Yvan thought he could cut up kegs and get the more valuable clear PET into a specialist recycler. Two problems, 1) it turned out specialist recyclers only wanted super clean plastics – manufacturing waste as opposed to “used” plastic, and 2) cutting up plastic kegs isn’t actually all that simple and 80 kegs into a pile from a festival Yvan slipped with a knife, severed a radial artery, and ended up in a hospital for a few days. KeyKeg kindly sent him flowers – which is nice, considering it was no fault of their own.

The eventual best solution we found was a waste handler who was willing to guarantee the keg plastics would be sent to a facility in the UK where they are burnt in a “clean” (full capture) incinerator to generate electricity. It wasn’t a great compromise – but it was the best we could do – and that’s when Jolly Good Beer first began offering a plastic keg collection service to try and help those customers who needed a solution for the problem of disposing of plastic one-way-kegs. Then our friendly local waste handler was bought by Veolia – and it all went to pot – Veolia would not tell us what was done with the plastics, and then also massively hiked the bin charges. So that was the end of that…

KeyKeg bodies in hydraulic baler
Baling KeyKeg Bodies

Then KeyKeg stepped in to save the day – we’d been in a regular dialog with KeyKeg about trying to solve the whole problem with recycling their kegs. KeyKegs were the vast majority of the plastic kegs we were collecting, over 99% of our collected kegs were KeyKeg. Like us KeyKeg spent time talking to existing UK recycling infrastructure trying to find a company to partner with on recycling the plastics – doing a broader search for a solution than we were able to, but like us they also found no solution. So they came up with their own – and made it so central to their operational messaging that they now trade as “One Circle” to highlight the fact they’re working on building a circular lifecycle for their kegs. We of course signed up as soon as we could – and now our KeyKegs are separated into black ends and clear (with bags) bodies at our warehouse, these are baled, palletised, and when we have 20+ pallets One Circle send a lorry haul this bulk material back to the Netherlands where it is processed into plastics that feed back into KeyKeg production. And this has worked quite well since – whilst KeyKegs were the vast majority of what we collected.

PolyKegs in cages
PolyKeg Cages

But come 2021 we have a new keg variety rising in our collection volumes – PolyKeg makes bigger sales push in the UK with some new keg designs and they catch on with breweries. Unfortunately leaving us at square one with no recycling solution for 50% of our collected plastic keg volume. Kegs with stickers on the sides claiming to be “Eco” – but with no recycling solution – basically we were exactly back where we were at the start with KeyKeg – the oxymoronic situation of a single-use-plastic “eco” keg. In their favour PolyKegs are designed to be easy to disassemble – which is an advantage over handing KeyKegs (no stabbing yourself!) – but it’s moot if you then have no way to recycle the components. It seems to me rather remiss of a business in this day and age to go to market with such claims yet no recycling solution in place (an accusation we also firmly lay at the door of KeyKeg to be fair – they have developed a solution, but it took years). Us and others publicly chased PolyKeg for a solution and thankfully PolyKeg and their UK distribution partners Murphy & Son stepped forward to the challenge of providing a solution. So we were able to continue our keg collections – we have cages on site that we put PolyKegs in and a Murphy & Son lorry that passes close to us on a regular route pops in and collects these. The PolyKeg solution is not a “circular” one – but it is recycling, the plastics go to a company called Naeco and are recycled mainly into fibre used to manufacture clothing sold under the Reborn brand (after that use we suppose that it is end-of-life, I’m not sure how much clothing plastic is recycled.)

Murphy & Son lorry collecting PolyKegs
Murphy & Son lorry collecting PolyKegs

We think both KeyKeg and PolyKeg could be doing more to promote the work they’re doing and better translate to the public – and especially the beer trade – how their recycling solutions work.

EcoKegs
EcoKegs

Another brand of keg not yet mentioned here is the EcoKeg – these guys came onto the UK market ahead of the others and have been around a long time, and they were able to offer a credible reuse/recycling model well ahead of anyone else. Their style of keg is quite different to the others in that it is designed with a re-usable outer shell. For brewers this means there is still an issue of having to collect those shells for re-use, or you just absorb the cost one-way-keg style. EcoKeg did however from early on have a return path set up where they repatriate kegs to their facility in Wales to be “rekegged” and the single-use parts are sent into recycling. The main issue we have with EcoKeg is we don’t get many of them so it takes a long while to build a full pallet of empties – however we now work around that by redistributing used EcoKegs to brewers who re-use the shells.

There are of course several other brands of plastic one-way-keg in the market – none of these, as far as we know, have a recycling solution in place. Thus they are unlikely to be recycled at all, anywhere. Also they are mainly made using brown or opaque plastics which have very little recycling value.

Brown plastic kegs
Brown plastic: not good for recycling

We still hope we will eventually find a generic plastic recycling solution we can send all other plastic keg materials too, we do make enquiries when we hear of a new lead on a possible recycling solution – but so far have always come away from those approaches empty-handed. It does not help that the actual value of plastic material for recycling is low – clear PET has a decent value, black polypropylene has a low value, brown plastics have basically zero value – and this impacts the viability of even attempting to create suitable recycling infrastructure. Unless the cost of oil skyrockets or the government steps in to economically incentivize recycling this is going to remain the case.

Jolly Good Beer collects all plastic keg types – as this keeps things simple for our drivers and customers. Kegs we collect have the following fates:

  • KeyKegs – separated into parts, baled, and palletised – shipped back to OneCircle in the Netherlands where they are recycled to produce more KeyKegs.

  • PolyKegs – collected from us by Murphy & Son who send them on to Naeco to be recycled into materials to manufacture clothing.

  • EcoKegs – sent to breweries who “re-bladder” them for re-use.

  • All Other One-Way-Kegs: Dolium, PETainer, etc – these all go into general waste stream unfortunately, and thus probably landfill.
Baled KeyKeg Ends

Note: we charge a £1+VAT fee per collected keg to cover our handling costs – the intention is to provide the plastic keg recycling option to customers in a cost-neutral way, we have no desire to make money off keg recycling, but also cannot afford to lose money on the overheads.

Jolly Good Beer does not recommend one brand of keg over others and cannot say definitively which options are “greener” than others, Yvan has done a lot of research into this and basically there’s always arguments either way. So long as plastics are recycled plastic kegs have advantages – they typically weigh 8kg less than steel kegs, and we can thus fit more in a van – making logistics more viable, and burning less fuel per litre of beer. But it’s difficult to quantify that – especially versus steel kegs that are heavier both at delivery and then cost more fuel for repatriation, and then significant energy and chemical use for cleaning. Depending on who you talk to you’ll hear plenty of arguments either way.

The one thing we will say by way of a preference is that we believe the “bag” style kegs that PolyKeg and KeyKeg produce provide brewers with the best guarantee that their beer will reach the consumer in the form they desire. For one thing, with a “bag”-keg your beer is not subject to the complete randomness of UK cellar gas qualities and pressures – in a context where almost no bar staff in the UK really understand how top-pressure kegs work. There are also dodgy small gas vendors in the UK who are not known for the quality of their gas (high O2 content) and there are often errors made with dispensing top-pressure kegs with air-compressors, especially using Lindr-type dispense units. There are also huge issues with how sanitary UK cellar gas systems are – we’ve found all sorts of gunk in them, mould inside gas lines even, and this is essentially being “blown” into your beer by the gas system. However each brewery needs to balance these risks against their possible desires to simply avoid plastics, or preferences for filling and working with specific keg styles. We also know via anecdotal evidence from brewers that the “bag” keg types have various foibles that can cause problems at filling time – which can raise wastage overheads. These are all questions for brewers to work through in their own decision making processes.

As a distributor Jolly Good Beer will work with any steel kegs, brewery kegs, or KeyKeg, PolyKeg and EcoKeg. However at the moment we do not accept other types of plastic keg as we do not want a proliferation of keg types from companies who have not bothered to address the issues with recycling their products in the UK (but we will collect them from customers). Our aim is very much to limit the amount of plastic landfill we are responsible for. Also to that end in-house we switched to paper box tape, we switched to paper based picking stickers, and even our branded pens have a cardboard or bamboo cylinder – and we continue to try and find more solutions too (pallet wrap is a big issue) and are working on minimising and mitigating our general carbon footprint. We encourage all our suppliers and customers to think about these things too – and take action where possible.

Like them or loathe them – plastic one-way-kegs seem to be here to stay, and we can but offer the best solutions available to us to help the industry deal with the problems they create. Petrochemical based plastics (nearly all current plastics) will never be sustainable – but almost nothing us humans do is, and similar problems can be picked out with respect to steel kegs. We hope that maybe the future will see kegs manufactured using more sustainable bioplastics – though even these need proper waste or recycling infrastructure in place.